Massacres Day in Washington


This is Doug Cassel of the Center for International Human Rights of Northwestern University School of Law, for Chicago Public Radio’s World View. February 27, 2003


Tuesday was Massacres Day at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C.


Although not officially so designated, that’s how the day turned out. After a morning report on human rights in Colombia overall, that afternoon the Commission heard four cases of massacres of Colombian civilians, each more chilling than the last.


I attended as adviser to David Stahl and Lisa Meyer, of the Chicago law firm of Eimer Stahl Klevorn & Solberg, who serve without fee as lawyers for the victims of one massacre. (Because Commission hearings are confidential, the following information is taken from other, public sources.)


The first case involved the bombing of the town of Santo Domingo by the Colombian air force in 1998. Seventeen civilians were killed and another 25 wounded. More than four years later, the Colombian justice system has done little more than bounce the case back and forth between military and civilian courts, in what David Stahl aptly calls a game of “judicial hot potato.”


At the request of Colombian religious and human rights groups, our Center at Northwestern convened an unofficial Tribunal of Opinion on this case in Chicago. Chaired by former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon and including ten other distinguished lawyers, clerics and community leaders, the Tribunal two years ago unanimously found Colombia responsible for the bombing, and recommended proper prosecutions.


Yet last month, frustrated over continued lack of progress in the case, the State Department suspended military aid to the Colombian air force unit involved. Colombia has now sent the case back to civilian courts. Will justice finally come? We shall see.


Next came the case of Mapiripan. In July 1997, Colombian army units guarding this town conveniently found other places to go. While they were away, paramilitaries moved in passing through an airport where police were stationed, and then through military checkpoints, all without being stopped.


Once in the town, which they deemed too friendly to guerrillas, they went on a rampage, torturing and killing 49 people. As a Commission report on the case describes the allegations, “After being dismembered, disemboweled and beheaded, the corpses of the victims were thrown into the river.”


Colombia has made efforts to prosecute the commanding general of the local army brigade, who has been charged with homicide, aggravated abduction and falsifying official documents on the case. Whether the prosecution will succeed remains to be seen.


The third case, La Rochela, involved not one, but two massacres. It began with the alleged massacre by paramilitary groups of 19 business people traveling between cities. Two Colombian judges decided to work together to investigate the killings. They formed a joint commission consisting of themselves, court officials and forensic technicians. In January 1989, when this commission went to the scene of the first massacre, they were themselves captured by paramilitaries. Along with their drivers, they were tied hand and foot, taken to another location and sprayed with bullets. Each victim was finished off with a shot to the head.


Some perpetrators including soldiers who collaborated with the paramilitaries were later convicted and imprisoned. But others were let off with light sentences, while still others have never been seriously investigated. Fourteen years later, the families of the victims are before the Commission, seeking in Washington the justice that eludes them in Colombia.


The fourth case is called Pueblo Bello, or “beautiful town.” In 1990 Colombian guerrillas stole cattle from the ranch of a paramilitary leader. Apparently unable to find the guerrillas, the paramilitaries took their revenge on local peasants, whom they accused of failing to stop the guerrillas. According to allegations published by the Commission, 43 peasants were brutally tortured. Their veins were opened, eyes punctured, ears sliced off and genitals mutilated. None has been found alive. For Colombian paramilitaries, it seems, the lives of cattle are worth more than the lives of peasants.


In his State of the Union address, after describing torture ordered by Saddam Hussein, President Bush concluded, “If that is not evil, then evil has no name.” Yet even while planning to invade Iraq, he props up Colombia’s military whose cooperation with paramilitaries is notorious with billions of dollars in aid.


Granted, Colombia is not Iraq. Also, the United States has taken important steps to promote justice in Colombia, such as the recent, first-ever suspension of aid to the air force unit in the Santo Domingo case. And the guerrillas, too, are guilty of widespread atrocities. Still, we need to reevaluate our deepening military involvement. If our de facto allies in Colombia are not steeped in evil, then evil has no name.


Doug Cassel’s commentaries are regularly broadcast on Chicago Public Radio’s World View each Wednesday during the 1:00 p.m. hour. Views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Northwestern University, the Center, or Chicago Public Radio.




Chicagoans for a Peaceful Colombia